James Graham’s fascinating “This House” is a backstager minus leggy showgirls. Indeed, the 16-strong cast of actors in multiple roles features only two women, a ratio befitting the setting of the corridors of power in the U.K. Parliament’s House of Commons in the 1970s. The behind-the-scenes, high-stakes wrangling may be tethered to British politics of the past, but in Jeremy Herrin’s taut production, history isn’t just alive, it’s resonant for everyone witnessing present-day political battles between idealism and pragmatism.
The famously shaky 1974-1979 Labour government clung to power with a tiny majority. To bring that to life, the predictable route would be dramatize events via the era’s still-famous political figures, not least the leader of the Tory opposition, Margaret Thatcher. Graham’s masterstroke is to banish the famous in favor of the powers behind the throne. Key figures up to and including the Prime Minister aren’t even mentioned by name, much less seen on stage.
U.K. terms of office have a maximum of five years but are otherwise not fixed, and Graham opens with high tension as rumors surface that the Tory government, in an ill-fated gesture of defiance, is about to call an election. Aided by helmer Herrin’s pedal-to-the-floor pace, Graham kicks off with the kind of action-packed exposition for which “The West Wing” was celebrated.
In a succession of tense, quick-fire exchanges introducing key players, one fact is indelibly established: Labour wins, but with a majority of just three the wafer-thin margin of power means every vote on every issue is a battleground. And the most important people in government — and the play — are the “whips,” members of parliament who, unbeknownst to the public, cajole, persuade, arm-twist and do absolutely anything to keep party members voting for the government.
On Labour’s side, the whips are cockney Bob Mellish (bullish Andrew Frame) and Walter Harrison (heavy hitting Philip Glenister) and, latterly, Michael Cocks (a wonderfully end-of-tether Vincent Franklin). Their Tory opposite numbers are upper-class Humphrey Atkins (Julian Wadham) and Jack Wetherill (wittily debonair Charles Edwards).
Through their wheeling and dealing, Graham focuses ruthlessly not on the parties’ warring ideologies, but on the mechanics of power. The bracing speed of both play and production create bursts of laugh-aloud humor as both parties go to increasingly insane lengths to woo the gaggle of independents whose support is crucial in swinging a vote. The result is tension that escalates almost throughout.
Rae Smith’s set design emulates not just the adversarial nature of the British political system but the physical layout of the House of Commons, which places members of each party opposite one another on long, upholstered rows of green leather seats. Smith re-creates all that.
The runway between the two sides is filled at either end by the two rival party offices, where plotting and manipulation run amok and in the increasingly desperate and dirty fight, the surprisingly complicated Harrison and Wetherill emerge as the two most unlikely men of conscience.
At just 30 years old, Graham wasn’t born until three years after the events of the play. Yet his writing and Herrin’s ideal production don’t just impress because of historical authenticity. In his National Theater debut, Graham swaps traditional character trajectories for a winning play of ideas: His huge cast collectively embody an expose of how things work and the art of compromise. Even as its achievement proves exhilarating, the sobering thought hits you that idealism declining in favor of expediency and power maintenance is still very much alive.